The more you know about the Japanese culture the deeper you can see beneath the touristic surface of Tokyo, and the closer you can get to understanding the unique traditions which shape Japanese society and culture today.

As a Gaijin (foreigner) you are not expected to act according to Japanese etiquette and nobody will be offended from your lack of Japanese social manners, but if you do make an effort it will be very much appreciated.

The culture of japan developed under the influence of a basic reality of Japan – it is a very crowded nation. Japanese must take into account other people in everyday life. In order to live peacefully in a crowd, there must be harmony which will make life more tolerable. Harmony is a very central theme in Japanese society. The harmony principle is also responsible for the quest to make things small, by making things tiny you leave more space for your neighbor.

Dependence on others and Harmony are key values in Japanese society. Individualism is viewed negatively and associated with selfishness. Japanese children are taught to act harmoniously and cooperatively with others from the time they go to pre-school. The Japanese education system emphasizes the interdependence of all people, and Japanese children are trained to work together. The education puts great emphasis on politeness, personal responsibility and working together and less importance on the individual.

Since the Japanese culture strives for harmony, showing emotions is very much limited. Most Japanese maintain a blank expression when speaking.

Japan is an extremely competitive society, but not competition within the group. Wa the concept of harmony within a group, requires an attitude of cooperation and a recognition of social roles. The price of these interpersonal tensions in Japanese culture is reflected in high rates of alcohol consumption, high level of suicides and psychosomatic medical syndromes. There is a school-refusal syndrome in which youngsters avoid academic or social interaction and retreat to their room for years. Another form of coping is by enjoying the escapism offered by popular Japanese culture.

Hierarchy is natural in Japanese culture. Relative status differences define all social interaction. Age or rank, gender, educational accomplishments, and place of employment guide interaction. Without some knowledge of the other’s background some very embarrassing situations can occur. Seating arrangements for a business meeting are a delicate and thoughtful procedure. I once participated in a business dinner where the seating strategy for the managers took more than 20 minutes to figure out by the employees. They were very aware and anxious not to offend anyone.

Bowing is a very important custom in Japanese culture. Japanese people bow all the time. Bowing has many functions – It expresses respect, thanking, apologizing, greeting, and so on. Don’t assume you can learn how to do it right. A simple inclination of the head or a slight bow at the waist is enough for foreigners. The reason is that Bowing is nothing less than an art. The etiquette surrounding bowing is very complex. The depth and length of a bow depends on the social status or age of the person you bow to. If the person is in higher status or older than you are, you should bow deeper and longer. If the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds) you are supposed to bow again. This often leads to a long exchange of progressively lighter bows. In addition – you are not supposed to turn your back to someone in higher status than you, even if you are saying goodbye. This leads to very amusing situations where people part going backwards, and even enter the Taxi with their backside first.

Addressing someone by attaching “san” to their last name is essential. This is not necessary with kids.

Staring into another person’s eyes is a big no-no, particularly those of a person who is senior to you because of age or status. In crowded situations the Japanese avoid eye contact to give others privacy. Come to think of it – in a city like Tokyo, this really makes life more pleasant (especially on the crowded subway).

You are expected to remove your shoes upon entering Japanese houses, and some restaurants. Your shoes are left outside the door. You will be provided with slippers. These slippers must not leave the house and they must be removed before walking on Tatami mats. If you are not given slippers, you can wear your socks, so make sure you have nice socks on. There are special slippers for the toilet area, so you must change to toilet area slippers and then back to regular slippers, this takes some time to get used to !

The emergency room masks people wear in the streets are not due to a terrible disease that has spread in Tokyo. They are worn in order to protect other people from a virus or a slight cold. Another example of thinking of other’s well being for the sake of harmony.

Bathtubs are increasingly common in modern Japanese homes, but there are still many homes that have’nt got any. That is why public bathhouses – Sento, are common. In the Sento customers bathe nude, men and women separately. Unlike western cultures, the Japanese go into the bath after they have washed and rinsed, and feel like relaxing in hot water. It can be very calming. If you have the time – I recommend it since it’s like going back in a time machine. This is the real Japan. Of course you’ll get some giggles and stares (westerners have much more body hair than Japanese) but who cares – it’s worth it !!

Please note: the pictures at this page are provided under several Creative Commons licenses.

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